With the availability of Google’s new smart-home hub, the company has marked its “move from mobile-first to AI-first,” stated CEO Sundar Pichai.
Google Assistant, the company’s voice-activated answer to Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa, is central to all the new products, presenting a vision of an ecosystem driving a wide assortment of new hardware products.
In a nutshell, Google Assistant adds “conversation actions” that require a bit of back and forth with the search base or app to traditional “direct actions” that respond to a voice command. The latter is mostly “say – do.” A user can tell the device to do something, and it fulfills the request.
The former is easiest to think of as “say – analyze – search – think – respond or do – reanalyze – refine – respond – respond or act again.” The search agents will find the answer to a question or complete a task using the vast array of images, sounds, content and actions Google can access.
For example, you can ask for a list of local French restaurants, then respond to the list with “Make a reservation at XYZ.” You can also say the time requested, who to call or SMS to meet you, add it to your calendar, order an Uber — specifying “UberX” or UberXL” — confirm the ride and then hear who the driver is and when they will arrive.
Google Assistant’s software is essential, but as Rick Osterlo, the head of Google’s newly formed Hardware Group, stated, “This is the right time to be focused on hardware and software … at the intersection of hardware and software, and AI is at the center of it all.” In Pichai’s words, the hardware lineup is meant get the Assistant in the hands of users “on two new surfaces, in the context of the phone and in context of your home.”
Central to Google’s vision is Google Home, its wireless speaker and smarthome hub. First revealed earlier in the year at Google I/O, Google Home is available now for pre-order on the Google Store and will be available on Nov. 4 from Google, Best Buy, Target and Walmart. Priced at $129, including a six-month subscription to YouTube Red, it will be $50 less than chief competitor Amazon Echo but almost 2.5 times more than the second-generation Amazon Dot. Bases will come in Mango, Marine and Violet fabric, and Carbon, Silver and Copper, in addition to the standard gray fabric.
The basic feature set is mostly unchanged from I/O, in many respects working the same as the Amazon Echo with far-field mics, audio from a tuned array of a 2-inch driver, and a pair of 2-inch passive radiators that will likely rival Echo’s sonic performance. It also has, of course, voice command and search.
Google’s bet here is on the use of Google Assistant as the “conversational search engine” to direct what Google Home does. Along with audio play command, it also controls video content from Chromecast dongles or equipped speakers and TVs. In a bow to multiroom audio, it can play the same content on multiple Home or Chromecasts within the home. There is no direct audio output, but Chromecast Audio dongles may be used for that purpose.
To be successful, Google Home will have to catch up to Amazon’s head start with thousands of connected device options and skills, along with the additional Amazon software for developers and installers announced at CEDIA. Initial support will be there for Nest, Samsung SmartThings, Philips Hue and IFTT with more partners to come. An open developer platform accommodates currently existing actions and apps created with API.AI, as well as an embedded SDK launching next year for use with everything from mass market CE products down to Raspberry Pi. Here, too, the goal is clearly to match Amazon’s tools for building skills.
Add the ability to include items stored in Google apps, voice-command Netflix content, or to play photos by name from to a screen with a Chromecast, and this is going to be a competitive product and platform that will give Amazon and Apple a run for their voice control dollars. In particular, Apple’s current limitation of Siri control to phones and tablets again makes one wonder to how the Cupertino giant will respond.
As expected, Chromecast Ultra will be priced at $69 with November availability. In a form factor almost identical to the current “round” Chromecast, it adds 4K capability with content from Netflix and YouTube, and soon from Google Play for movies and TV.
Chromecast Ultra continues to use the concept of letting the user’s phone, tablet or computer do the driving. Announced, but not expected are two features that will differentiate it from other “dongles” such as Amazon Fire TV Stick and Roku’s Streaming Stick. The 4K is obvious, but along with the HDR-10 available on the Roku Premiere+ and Ultra models it also offers Dolby Vision capability. The other dongle-size market exclusive is an Ethernet port on the power adapter for situations where Wi-Fi may not be robust enough for 4K content.
Clearly different in approach from both the new 4K models from Roku and the updated FireTV Stick, the question for Google is how the market accepts its price in relation to the features and price of the competitors.
These new Google products (including also a new Wi-Fi router/access point), as well as Amazon’s aggressive push and the unpredictability of how Apple will respond, points to a vibrant new market segment that all will be able to profit from if they play their cards correctly.
Also introduced was a pair of new Pixel phones, replacing the current Nexus branding. Running Nougat 7.1, the Google Assistant is behind the scenes running the show. Extraordinary image capture is claimed, with a 12.3-megapixel rear camera and an 8-megapixel front camera. Sweetening the deal, unlimited image storage via Google Photos is included. Fast-charge capability for the battery provides a recharge of up to seven hours of usage in just 15 minutes.
Verizon will be the only carrier to offer the phones, but they will also be available as unlocked devices directly from the Google Store. Pricing for the 5-inch model is $649 or $27.01/month for 32GB or $749 or $31.25/month for 132GB. The 5.5-inch is $769 or $32.04/month for 32GB and $869 or $36.21/ month for 128GB. Pre-order is open, with a coupon for a Google Daydream View VR headset included. Delivery date was not mentioned.
Daydream View still uses a phone, initially the Pixel models, but later a wide variety of Android phone brands, much as Gear VR uses a Samsung phone. You might say that it is just a fancier Cardboard, but it includes a two-button wireless controller to let the user interact with the content without head movement. Content expands on that already available for Cardboard such as The New York Times, with VR content apps to come from Hulu, HBO Now, Netflix and others.
Priced at $79 with availability in November from Verizon and Best Buy as well as the Google Store, it will be interesting to see how Daydream View competes with Gear VR in one form-factor expression and Oculus, Sony PlayStation VR and HTC Vive at the other end of the price scale. Here, literally, let the games begin.